Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lobbying at the Grass Roots Level: Caucus Meeting Report

35 minutes into last night’s caucus meeting, it became clear that the UEA and its fellow travelers had made good on their promise to pack GOP caucus meetings with operatives — at least with respect to my precinct. A few minutes later, it was clear that these folks came to the meeting with a huge chip on their collective shoulder.

The educrats demonstrated an unmistakable us-against-them attitude. Many of my neighbors were surprised to find that they were on the “them” side of this equation. I watched as stunned people, some of whom were PTA members that had donated thousands of hours to public schools, were in essence told that they were evil for supporting any kind of education reform that entailed anything other than putting more money into the current bureaucracy. What was worse is that those saying this were public education employees with whom some of these volunteers had worked closely over the years.

One attendee complained that the UEA is already the largest lobbying organization in the state because “23% of the legislature consists of UEA members.” (I’m not sure if the largest lobby charge is accurate. How many legislators are members of the Utah Realtors Association?) The attendee charged that the educators at the meeting were only there at the behest of the UEA. One of the educators retorted, “This effort isn’t just sponsored by the UEA, but by others interested in education, like the PTA, and … uh … and …” “Everyone else that profits from public education,” replied the first person. That comment brought hoots and jeers from the educators.

One man named Doug was marvelously controlled as he eloquently argued with measured passion for less socialism, less government, and more free enterprise. He made a reasoned plea, backed up with dollar amounts and statistics, for open minds and innovative approaches to all issues involving government, including education.

However, when Doug quoted some data from the Utah Taxpayers Association, several educators rudely interrupted to say that it was “a corrupt organization.” The association, they said is “the UEA for business interests, which is why the UEA is so necessary” for education interests.

Let me make it clear that I believe that educators should be free to join a union if they wish. I have problems with coercive practices that attempt to force education employees to be union members (or members of a specific union). But I have a much bigger problem with the proposition continually put forth that educator unions work in the interest of students.

I do not disagree that some things unions have supported have had a salutary effect on students. But it is ridiculous to suppose that educator unions are good arbiters of student welfare. The relationship of educator unions to parents and taxpayers is like the relationship of the United Auto Workers Union to car buyers. How well does the UAW represent you as a car buyer? The relationship of educator unions to students is like the relationship of the UAW to cars. The students are simply the product. Can anyone seriously claim that UAW actions have produced superior automotive products? Rather, it seems that the opposite is true.

My state legislative representative happens to live in my precinct. He stood and cited from an official state report showing that in the last three sessions, the legislature has appropriated more than $937 million to public education over and above regular funding.

Moments later, my former fifth grade teacher stood and said that the legislature never willingly did anything for education or for Utah’s school children. He said that during his four decades in public education, every raise he ever got, every new building and facility improvement he ever saw, and every supply came only “from the UEA. The legislature,” he claimed “never did anything for public education!”

My former teacher’s argument seemed rather silly in light of the numbers cited just moments earlier by our legislative rep, but a younger teacher then stood and stridently charged that “the GOP in this state has constantly been at war with public education. I’ve been a lifelong Republican, but I simply can’t understand the party’s opposition to public education.” He continued, saying, “Public education is the key to individual success.” Never mind the private and home schooled individuals that have succeeded well. There seemed to be no appreciation of the fact that public education consumes 62% of the state budget, that there are other needs, and that the size of the revenue pie is limited.

My former teacher soon chimed in to say that people too often give public education a bum rap. “The people that pulled off manned flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle, and Skylab — the most advanced achievements ever — were products of public education,” he claimed.

OK, so Werner von Braun was a product of the German education system. And while many people that worked on the cited NASA missions were publicly schooled, they were in those schools back in the 50s and 60s. Studies show that today’s public schools are a far cry from those of yesteryear. Not only do students perform worse on average, we spend 250% more per student in real (inflation adjusted) terms than we did back then.

The education Nazis at my caucus meeting made it clear that they and others like them intended to wrest control of the Utah Republican Party in order to punish those that were “anti-education.” But they ultimately proved to be bad at math. Enough of them wanted to be county and state delegates to fill every slot our precinct had available. An equal number of people that weren’t education employees were nominated. Even though numbers of educators and non-educators at the meeting seemed close to being evenly split, not a single educator was elected to serve as a delegate.

The educators should have talked among themselves and agreed on one or two individuals instead of trying to win every slot. They ended up spreading themselves too thin and diluting their collective vote weight. Some of the educators must have voted for one or more non-educators, but apparently no non-educators voted for educators. By the time the voting rolled around, I’m afraid that the educators seemed very myopic and unreasonable. It was not an impressive display. I’m afraid that they only succeeded in convincing some of their neighbors that education reform is even more necessary.

Despite the spirited discussions, the meeting ended normally and we all parted amicably. While I was not unaware of UEA efforts to pack GOP caucuses with operatives, I was surprised at how singular these people were in their focus. They are certainly citizens and cannot be unaware of the multiple and complex issues dealt with in state governance. For them, however, there seemed to be only one issue. It will be interesting to see how many of these folks turn up the next time around.

This is how our political system works at its lowest level. Neighbors with various points of view gather, discuss issues, and vote for people to represent them at the county and state conventions. Last night at my precinct’s caucus meeting, the angry educator lobby failed to convince their neighbors to vote for them. Perhaps next time they’ll work smarter to combine votes. It also wouldn’t hurt for them to try being less abrasive.


That One Guy said...

"Perhaps next time they'll work smarter to combine votes. It also wouldn’t hurt for them to try being less abrasive."

Two things HIGHLY unlikely to happen any time soon....

Great post. I liked the (very valid) comparison to the UAW.

Also, when you gather the Leg. members who are members of the Realtors Assoc., and THEN add those who are RE Developers, or otherwise engaged in RE Development in some other facet, you get a pretty large number. And that's why we are a non-disclosure state, along with a whole litany of other circumstances related to property rights, real estate, and property taxation.


Jesse Harris said...

It sounds like the "pro-education" attendees forgot that politics is a popularity contest. Being abrasive and combative rarely works out too well except when preaching to the choir. It sounds like their efforts were poorly planned and entirely anger-motivated. That's hardly a way to get anything accomplished.

Anonymous said...

The govskools are a repository of incompetents.

That was a good thing for your neighborhood caucus, and the process outed some of your neighbors who have no moral qualms about using politics to steal from some and give to themselves.

But it's still a long road to separate school and state in Utah.

Bradley Ross said...

I love the caucus system. Each time I've gone, the experience has been different. I haven't seen anything like you reported. Our sessions have been civil, even when there have been disagreements (as there were in our caucus over vouchers).

The weirdest part of the caucus meeting for me this time was the couple of people who seemed to be eager to get the whole thing done with so they could leave. They were urging us to skip speeches and questions by candidates for the offices and delegate slots. I wondered why they came in the first place if they didn't want to discuss the issues of the day and assess the views of their neighbors.